Saturday, 16 September 2017

Westmill parkrun

In Hertfordshire you will find the town of Ware, which is said to be one of the oldest continuously occupied sites in the whole of Europe. It has a population of around 19,000 people and lies on the banks of the River Lea. The river has historically always been key to the town's prosperity and it was used to transport the town's largest export, beer to London.

westmill farm

To the north-west of the town centre is Westmill Farm. From what I can see, the farm covers an area of about 110 acres and is used for much more than just farming. There is a restaurant and function rooms which are used for weddings, a contemporary arts centre, model car track and shop, a children's indoor soft play centre and a camping and caravan site. But that's not all...

There is an outdoor activities centre, EDGE Outdoor Activities, which includes high ropes, axe/knife throwing, archery, quad biking, zip line, climbing wall, water sports, laser clay, nine hole golf course, footgolf and mountain boarding. There's also zorbing at the zorb strike centre and the bi-annual 'Carnage' 5k and 10k mud runs.

briefings etc...

We drove over to the venue in September 2017 to take part in the farm's latest addition - the free, 5k event - Westmill parkrun. When entering the venue there's a sequence of tracks to drive down in order to reach the EDGE outdoor activity centre car park - it's best to refer to the Westmill parkrun course page for the exact route to take. The centrepiece to the landscape here are the three lakes and the view across the them is stunning.

Back to the subject of travel, the venue is not easily reachable by public transport. There is a train station in Ware, however it's about 3.5km away and part of the route along the main road has no footpath. The same problem exists if taking the bus, so travelling by car seems to be the best option.

around the course (early part of the lap)

If you did happen to cycle, you'd be looking at securing your bike to a wooden post somewhere around the car park (I don't remember seeing any bike racks).

Once parked in the free car park there are toilet facilities in a wooden hut adjacent to the archery and knife throwing areas. The participants and volunteers all meet up next to the car park. During my visit there was a first-timers briefing and this was followed by a short walk back along the gravelly track that we had just driven along to reach the car park to reach the start.

around the course (view before the steep downhill / reaching the lakes)

With everyone assembled on the start line, the full briefing took place and with that done we were sent on our way around the farm. The course is just under two, undulating, anti-clockwise laps. Underfoot is mostly grass or dirt tracks, but has the occasional section across gravelly or tarmac paths. For shoe choice, I'd have to go with trail shoes every time - even in the summer.

For the record, I never would have found my way around the course without the arrows and directions from marshals. I'll do my best to give a little description. The start is on the gravelly road but soon after the start, the course leaves the road and heads gently uphill along the side of the golf course. There's a chicane at the top where the runners pass across to the other side of the road.

around the course (still around the lakes)

Running on quite smooth grass along the footgolf course, the route passes the Three Lakes Restaurant then fiddles through some trees and the runners pass through the zorb strike centre car park. The course then heads gently downhill along an alleyway of trees before passing through a gate into an open field.

The view across the countryside is fantastic here and the runners soon negotiate a steep downhill with a 90 degree right-hand-turn at the end - the extra grip given by trail shoes really comes in handy here, but be careful at the bottom!

almost at the end of the lap

Now at the lowest part of the course, it remains flat for a while as the runners run adjacent to the three lakes. Their exact history is a little hard to find, but from what I gather it seems that they were previously quarries that were subsequently left to form lakes. They are now known as the Rib Valley Fishing Lakes. There were a few anglers around but none on the parkrun route itself.

As the route passes the last of the lakes, the elevation starts to rise again and this takes the runners past the finish funnel before passing through the EDGE car park and adjacent to the road on another grass path before linking up with the loop again. At the end of the second lap, it's a simple case of heading straight into the finish funnel, collecting a position token and having it scanned.

end of lap

After the run, the options for tea/coffee breakfast are to pop into the cafe adjacent to the car park - however they only serve light refreshments, so if you are after something more substantial you can head to the Three Lakes Restaurant where they have a few more options. We had already made plans to head to Hackney Downs to visit the monthly vegan market for lunch, so we hit the road without sampling the on-site refreshment options.

I recorded my run using my Garmin and you can view the course data on Strava, here: Westmill parkrun GPS data. For the record, the official course map is not currently exactly the same as the route that was used when I visited. I also used the Relive app to create a fly-by of the course and you can view that here: Westmill parkrun course fly-by.

finish (note the finish area in the distance)

The results for event 9 were processed and I received my result later that morning. Seventy-one participants took part in the event, which is about the current average for this venue. So, it's a fab course with great views and enough undulations to make it tough enough for a good hard effort run - it won't be a personal best, but it will be enjoyable. Plus, in the winter the course is going to get pretty muddy so it'll be a great place to come to play in the mud!

Related links:

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Heartwood Forest parkrun

On the old roman road between St. Albans and Wheathampstead you'll find the village of Sandridge. It was first recorded as Saundruage and has a population of around 5,000 people. The oldest building in the village is St Leonards Church which dates back to 1114. Sandridge was of national importance during the Second World war due to the presence of a secret station for intercepting wireless enemy transmissions which were then relayed to Bletchley for decryption.

To the north of the village is Heartwood Forest which, I'm told, takes its name from the heart-shaped leaves of the Lime trees that grow here. Unusually, with the exception of a few patches of ancient woodland, this one is brand new. In 2008 the Woodland Trust acquired 850 acres of arable farmland from Hillend Farm in order to embark on its most ambitious project to date. In 2009 the trust began planting the first of what will be a total of around 600,000 trees by the time the planting is complete sometime in 2018.

heartwood forest [photos: 7t]

The project does not only involve planting the forest trees, but also creating new wildlife habitats such as wildflower meadows, grassland and even wetlands. Thousands of local people have been involved in the project which also includes a six-hundred-fruit-tree orchard. An arboretum has also been created and this is the only one in the UK to contain all of our 57 native tree species.

On 29 July 2017 the forest became home to Heartwood Forest parkrun, and I visited to take part in event 6 which was held on 9 September 2017. Usually at a venue like this, I would park in the on-site car park. However, although there is a car park within the grounds, it is not currently available for those wishing to take part in the parkrun. Being a new event, overwhelming the car park might upset some of the regular Saturday morning users of the forest (dog walkers, of which there are many) and that wouldn't be a good way to begin.

start area [photos: 7t / richard underwood]

With that in mind, I had to find a place to park outside the forest grounds. Somewhere in the village was the obvious choice so I popped the car into the free car park at the village hall. Conveniently the toilets are also located here so I made use of them before heading over to the forest which, for the record, currently has no further facilities apart from a bicycle rack. The nearest train station is about 3 miles away in St Albans.

Once within the woodland trust grounds I found the parkrun volunteer team just next to the forbidden car park. One of the first things that I noticed was the venue feels more like a country park rather than a forest because the thousands of saplings are still only around a metre or two tall. As 9am approached I had a quick warm-up and before I knew it it was time for the first-timers briefing.

typical gravel path / bridleway [photos: 7t]

With that done and dusted the participants were lead about 400 metres along the gravelly path to the start point which is found right next to the badger bench. In fact you'll see quite a few carved wooden animals as you work your way around the course - they represent the wildlife found here and mark the 'Magical Meander', a trail that leads towards The Magical Wood. They were sponsored by the Disney Store and are the work of chainsaw carver Will Lee.

The main briefing was held at the starting point and the runners were then sent on their way. The course is made up of one full lap followed by about three-quarters of a second lap. Underfoot is a combination of a loose gravel paths and off road grass/dirt paths. As far as shoe choice was concerned, road shoes would get you around during the summer months, but I have a strong suspicion that during the winter trail shoes will be a must.

the magical wood [photos: 7t / marshal]

So, the course... It starts on the gravel path and instantly heads uphill, it's not steep but it'll put you in your place if you start off too fast. About 200 metres in, the course turns onto grass and continues to head gently uphill. As the course starts to flatten out it joins a bridleway - there is a good chance that you could encounter horse riders along this section.

Once at the northernmost point of the course there is a sharp left-hand turn off of the bridleway and the run now heads through The Magical Wood. The grass path through here is a lot of fun as it twists and turns around the newly-planted trees - it truly is magical to run through and I'm guessing will only get even better as the trees mature.

heart-shaped lime tree leaf (i think) / views [photos: 7t]

When exiting The Magical Wood the runners pass through the chainsaw carver's beautifully crafted wooden archway and run back along the bridleway - this short section has two-way runners so everyone needs to stick to their respective right-hand-side. Turning off of the bridleway into the open meadow, the south facing view towards Sandridge and beyond is beautiful.

The course now gives back what it took during the uphill at the beginning and it's all downhill across the grass and then back onto gravel all the way back to the original meeting point next to the car park. However don't forget to glance to the right on the way down where the magnificent Langley Wood can be seen in the distance - if visiting in the spring it is worth taking a walk into the woods to see the carpet of bluebells which I'm told are simply stunning.

towards the end of the lap [photos: 7t]

Once reaching the car park, it's time to turn left and head back along the path you walked along before the run started. It's a fairly gentle incline averaging between 3% and 6% but it feels like it's never going to end! I had a tiny dog incident along here where a dog walked and stood right in front of me, it broke my stride and I briefly came to a halt - no harm done to me or the dog.

The full incline on this second lap covers about a whole kilometre, and once you've retraced your steps through The Magical Wood and back down the gravelly decline, you'll reach the car park but this time you take a sharp right hand turn right into the finishing funnel - job done! After a quick recovery and having my barcode scanned I headed back out onto the course to take a few photos.

approaching the finish area / magical meander [photos: 7t]

I had recorded my run using my Garmin and the GPS course data can be viewed on Strava, here: Heartwood Forest parkrun #6. I also used the Relive app to create a fly-by video of the course: Heartwood Forest parkrun course fly-by video. The full results for event 6 were processed and published shortly after the run and 131 people took part. For the record this is a net downhill course (has more downhill than uphill).

After chatting to a few of the volunteers after the run, I found out that they are still working on securing some kind of car parking solution, for now it's a choice between the free car park at the village hall or finding a space on one of the residential side streets. However, in all fairness, if you think you'll need to use the facilities before the run and/or plan to hang out with the team at the post-run coffee venue, The Queen's Head pub, the village car park could remain the best option.

finish area [photos: 7t / richard underwood]

Lastly, the unique setting of this run means that as the years go on the forest is going to evolve. It's going to be wonderful to watch this happening and I look forward to revisiting in the future to see how things have changed.


Sunday, 3 September 2017

Lullerzz (Lullingstone parkrun 126)

A few of us in the Dartford-parkrun-on-Tour crew decided that we should pop over to the fantastically wonderful Lullingstone parkrun to begin to prep our legs for the upcoming cross-country season. Being only 7 miles away from home, this venue is effectively on-our-doorstep and I'm a bit embarrassed to have taken so long to get over for a revisit.

dartford parkrun on tour [photo: dani]

Since the last time I visited, an unofficial list of parkruns-by-elevation has been published and Lullingstone features at number 452 out of 458 in the UK. Or if you reverse it, it is the 7th hilliest parkrun course in the UK out of the 458 listed. It's an off-road course (all grass and dirt) but since it was still summer it was all very dry underfoot.

The run itself went pretty well* and I came away with a 48 second personal best for the course so that was a nice bonus (full results). The Dartford-parkrun-on-Tour crew all went to the post-run cafe afterwards. Sadly the cafe don't really serve any vegetarian breakfasty food, so if you're peckish it's a choice between one of the fine selection of cakes on offer or something like a panini. However the tea was outstanding!

[photo: dani]

After spending a little time in the playground with my daughter, we hit the road back to Dartford. It was really good visiting Lullingstone parkrun again and we've kinda come up with a plan to pop back over when the course softens up as the winter sets in for some proper fun-in-the-mud!

* Bloody hard work (especially on the second lap)


Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Dartford 10k 2017

The Dartford 10k is a brand new (as of 2017) August Bank Holiday event hosted by Dartford Road Runners (DRR). It effectively replaces the Les Witton Dartford 10 Miler which had its last running in 2014 (blog here). DRR are also responsible for the Joydens Wood 5k race series and the Run Dartford race series (my venue guide), so they are well rehearsed and have a reputation for putting on great races.

I entered the Dartford 10k a couple of weeks beforehand via the Runbritain online race booking system and paid the affiliated runner price of £15. Non-affiliated runners had an advance entry fee of £17 while on-the-day entries were £20. I received a detailed race instructions email a few days later.

The race headquarters was at the Dartford Football Club stadium, Princes Park, and the venue also has car parking available. Being a football ground, it has toilets as well as post-race refreshments facilities. The race HQ was set up on the first floor inside the main stadium overlooking the football pitch. Race numbers and timing chips were collected on-the-day from the desks at HQ. There was also a bag drop available in this room and once changed I left mine with some of the lovely DRR volunteers.

dartford 10k 2017 [photos: 7t]

Despite already being warmed up from my 2.5km jog from home to the HQ, I took advantage of the caged astroturf football pitch adjacent to the stadium that had been put aside for runners to warm up for the race where I did a few strides etc. The race start time was 9am and the participants had all gathered at the start area a few minutes beforehand. After a quick briefing, the race was underway...

Heading along the football stadium access road the course initially headed downhill where runners had to take care passing over the cobbled speed bumps. A quick left-right took the runners onto Powder Mill Lane where the downhill gets even steeper (-11% at one point). Upon crossing the River Darent, the course hits one of its lowest points and things level out.

My pace was already quite fast due to the downhill start and I worked my way through the Questor Industrial Estate in the bright sunshine - it was a beautiful August Bank Holiday Monday, but the heat did make things feel tougher out there. I passed the 1km mark in 3.49. I knew this was a pace I couldn't sustain so I did my best to relax and ease into a more settled pace.

number collection / course map [photos:7t]

Exiting the industrial estate for a 3km stretch along Hawley Road, the course passed under the A2 and M25 motorways and felt totally flat. However after reviewing my GPS data, there was a very gentle incline all the way along this road right up until 4.4 kilometres where the route turned off of the main road and into South Darenth. The gentle incline naturally lead to a gradual slowing of my pace, which was needed.

The route through South Darenth took the runners along a residential street before heading into a single file, slightly uneven, alley way path for 500m which runs alongside a lake. Turning back onto the residential streets the course crossed the River Darent again and this roughly marked the halfway point. I crossed 5km in pretty much 21 minutes flat, which is only about 15 seconds slower than my current 5k pace. I had set myself up for a pretty painful second 5k and there were times where I wondered why I continue to put myself through this self-inflicted misery.

If there's anything that can be said, it is that this is definitely a race of two halves. The first five kilometres allowed for a quick pace, but the second half contained the some challenging undulations and hills. Straight after crossing the river, the inclines started - first of all along Holmesdale Road which turned into Holmesdale Hill after rounding a bend. Then the course turned onto Roman Villa Road and the first water station was found, I was suffering quite a bit at this point and eased off the gas to take a sip of water before dumping the remainder of the water over my head (I've since decided that pouring water on myself didn't really help - all it did was make my vest heavy and uncomfortable).

the opening downhill [photo: becca] / about 9k [photo: ann langdon]

I'm quite familiar with Roman Villa Road as I quite often cycle along it. It is 1.5km in length and is the most scenic part of the course with lovely views across the Darenth Valley to the left. The heat was still an issue but by staying to the right hand side of the road it was possible to keep in the shade. I kept plugging away along the road's undulations until reaching the end where the incline is a little steeper (roughly 10% gradient).

A bit of relief was found at the end of the road as the course swept down the steep decline of Darenth Hill towards Green Street Green which is flat for a short while and due to the high temperatures an additional water station had been set up just as the course passes back under the A2. The flat section gave a little time to mull over the final climb of the day, which was Trolling Down Hill. To be fair the incline here is not very steep (around 3%) but it heads uphill for almost a kilometre. As you'd expect, it felt harder being towards the end of the race, plus there was nowhere to hide from the blazing sunshine.

The course eventually crossed over the M25 and reached the end of the road where the runners headed back into the football stadium complex via the Princes Road gate and the finish was found shortly afterwards. After composing myself and letting the urge to vomit pass, I picked up my participation medal and headed over to the water table to start re-hydrating.

trolling down hill [photo: ann langdon] / race medal [photo:7t]

The design of the medal was pretty cool - the top border matched the hill profile of the course, which I thought was a great idea. There was no shortage of familiar faces to be found and I spent a fair bit of time chatting to fellow runners and exchanging thoughts about the tough second half of the course. The results were available instantly via two laptops which had been set up for runners to use - I had a quick glance but didn't linger for too long. I collected my belongings from the first floor of the stadium and headed back out onto the road for my short cool-down jog back home.

The official results and a great album of official photographs were published a bit later in the day. I also generated the course fly-by with the Relive app and you can view it on youtube, here - Relive: Dartford 10k 2017.

Position: 27th / 276 (26th male)
Age Group (Vet 40M): 7th / 59
Official chip time: 43:44
Official gun time: 43:46

Race Links:
Official Results: Race Timing Solutions - Dartford 10k 2017
My GPS data: Strava - Dartford 10k 2017
Course fly-by: Relive - Dartford 10k 2017

Related blog race links:
Les Witton 10 Miler 2014
Canterbury Half Marathon 2014 (local August Bank Holiday race)
Sevenoaks 7 2016 (local August Bank Holiday race)

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Burnham-on-Crouch parkrun

Burnham-on-Crouch is a town in the Maldon district of Essex. It lies in the Dengie Peninsula which is formed by the River Crouch, Blackwater and the North Sea. The soil on the peninsula is rich which makes it ideal for farming, in fact some of the oldest and largest vineyards in the UK are found here. The town itself has a population of around 7,500 and the wider peninsula is home to around 20,000 in total.

At the eastern end of the peninsula is the 3,105 hectare, tidal mudflat and saltmarsh, Dengie Nature Reserve which is (deep breath)...... a 'Site of Special Scientific Interest', a 'National Nature Reserve', 'Special Protection Area', a 'National Conservation Review' site, a 'Geological Conservation Review' site, a 'Ramsar Site', and part of the Essex estuaries 'Special Area of Conservation'.

burnham on crouch / with fellow tourist gary

Burnham-on-Crouch is found, unsurprisingly, on the banks of the River Crouch. The river has always been key to the prosperity of the town, first as a ferry port, and subsequently for fishing and oyster farming. The Crouch Oysters were famous across the country and beyond during the 17-1800s with the Burnham Oyster Company being one of the town's major employers.

In modern times it has become a centre for yachting and you'll find many yacht and sailing clubs in the town. Since 1893 there has been an annual yachting regatta known as Burnham Week and out of pure coincidence our visit here happened to fall on the first weekend of the regatta.


After driving for about an hour from Dartford we arrived in the town and made our way to Riverside Country Park where we parked in the free car park just past the Dengie Hundred Sports Centre. The country park is the venue for Burnham-on-Crouch parkrun. It is the second parkrun located within the Maldon District - the other being Maldon Prom parkrun (blog here).

Had we decided to use public transport we could have travelled by train to Burnham-on-Crouch Train Station which is only fortunate enough to still be in existence as the line was previously used to supply the now-decommissioned Bradwell Nuclear Power Station. The train station is a short walk away from the venue and the toilets (open from 8am) can be found right next to the start/finish area.

first part of the lap / zig-zags / saltmarsh coast trail

The run starts on the grass playing field opposite the sports centre and Burnham Rugby Club, and is made up of two, mixed terrain, clockwise laps. It's generally flat but has small changes in elevation. For shoe choice I went for trail which were a bit over-the-top in the summer, but in the winter they'll come in handy. The briefing takes place on the grass at the start area and the runners then assemble on the start line before being sent on their weekly 5 kilometre trot around the park.

From the start, the run heads off around the grass field until it reaches the zig-zag path that leads up onto the Saltmarsh Coast Trail river path. Here the course heads westwards past the moored house boats. It's important to keep left along here (especially on lap two) as this section contains a short contraflow of parkrunners. At the same time the river edge has no railings so be careful.

river front / harbour

After 0.6km (3.1km second time around) the course bears around to the right and the participants run adjacent to the Burnham Yacht Harbour which has berths for 350 boats. Continuing northwards and deeper into the park, the elevation ever-so-gently rises as the course passes through wildlife habitats and wildflower meadows.

Underfoot here were slightly-rutted-in-places mown grass paths which I suspect could get a little muddy in the minter. The long grass in the meadows are home to Adders and the advice is to avoid walking in the long grass during the spring when they are coming out of hibernation (not a problem for the run, but bear it in mind of you go for a walk afterwards).

inner park meadows / back past the amphitheatre

After running the loop through the meadows, the course pops out on the open grass field adjacent to the yacht harbour path, which is known as 'The Plateau' - I found this area was particularly popular with dog walkers and there were quite a few big dogs running around.

The course is marked with cones along here and it passes through a picnic area next to the small riverside amphitheatre before joining the contraflow section of the river path.

weaving back towards the start area

The course turns away from the river immediately after the fire beacon and follows a stony path which contains a few twists and a very sharp turn that take the runners past the skate park and multi-sport courts. Finally the course heads back onto the sports field where the halfway point is reached. An identical lap is run and the 5 kilometre course is complete.

Barcode scanning takes place at the finishing line and once all participants have finished. the team move onto their post-run coffee venue 'Happy Returns' which is outside the park on Station Road. We had already decided to have a day out in the town so had brought a packed lunch, and we found a nice spot in the well-equipped playground to eat it while our daughter played.

final part of lap

The results for event 6 were soon processed and my result notification came through as we were eating where I saw that 52 people had taken part which was slightly lower than the average to date. I recorded the course data using my Garmin and you can view the course in further detail on Strava - Burnham-on-Crouch parkrun GPS data. I also generated a fly-by video using the #relive app and you can watch that on youtube - Burnham-on-Crouch #6 relive video.

Afterwards we headed off to the independently-owned two-screen Rio Cinema which has been in operation since 1931 in the definitely-not-art-deco purpose-built building on Station Road. The entry-fee was £3 per person and they have many of the latest films on the bill. It was very different from the modern-day cinemas and they even had comfy sofas at the back which we used - you could say that we were in Burnham-on-a-couch (or even in Burnham-on-Crouch-on-a-couch)!



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